By Chris Murray
For the CM Report
As a sports writer and columnist, I’ve always thought that statistics have been useful at breaking down the reasons why teams or individuals win or lose. They don’t always tell the whole story, but some illustrate things better than others.
But there are times when statistics can be a pain in the rear end. Baseball has been one of those sports where sometimes folks can take mere numbers and turn them into something they’re not or draw too many erroneous conclusions.
Case in point, Sean Foreman, the man who runs the site Baseball Reference.com, wrote an article in the New York Times that said Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard, who leads the National League and is tied for the Major League lead in runs batted in, is not the elite hitter that his ability to drive in runs implies based on sabermetric statistics. The term sabermetrics is derived from the acronym Society for American Baseball Research.
According to Foreman, the goal of sabermetrics is to “separate the effects of teammates from our evaluation of a player’s performance.” Er… isn’t baseball a team game where if all nine guys perform as a unit the team wins?
Foreman also states that Howard ranks 23rd in the National League in o.p.s (on-base-percentage plus slugging percentage), the Phils first baseman also ranked below 12 of his fellow first baseman in that category. In other sabermetric gobbledygook, Howard never ranks in the top 10 in hitting,defense, base-running and another bizarre stat—Wins Above Replacement or WAR-which measure how many more wins a player would give a team opposed to a backup player at his position. Foreman writes that Howard is only the seventh best player on his team based on sabermetric stats.
So how does Foreman explain Howard’s ability to knock in runs?
Well, it’s because Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, and Placido Polanco, when he was batting second in the lineup all have high on-base percentages. Foreman writes, “the Phillies’ 1-3 hitters reached base 547 times, the eighth most in the majors. But as a group, they ranked 17th in extra-base hits, so they get on base but leave more runners for Howard to drive in.”
Huh? What? Isn’t that the job of the no. 4 hitter, your cleanup man to drive those guys in? When Rollins and Victorino get on base, their job is to get in scoring position and be on base for Utley or Howard to drive those guys in. That’s Baseball 101.
“Go look and see how many guys you can find who drives 120 runs and hits 40 home runs and hits like he does from the seventh inning on in a game,” said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. “There’s a reason why he hits fourth and the reason is that he’s earned the right to be there. He is that big guy, he’s a carrier. He carries your lineup.”
I will take Manuel’s word because he sees Howard everyday and because some of his former pupils include folks like Jim Thome, who became one of eight players to hit 600 homeruns in his career, and recent Hall-of-Fame inductee Roberto Alomar, both of whom said the Phillies manager was responsible for their development as hitters.
With all due respect to Foreman, whose site is like the bible of baseball statistics, the whole sabermetric stat thing has nothing to do with the game of baseball itself on a daily basis. You can’t say that Howard or any other slugger would have so many RBI if their teammates don’t get on base. It’s a team game you can’t separate one individual from his teammates to prove some statistical point.
That’s like saying Peyton Manning would suck as a quarterback if wasn’t for his receivers catching balls. The reason why Howard has been in the top five in the MVP voting for the past four years is because he does drive in runs and if you score more runs and your pitchers keep the other guys from scoring runs, you’re going to win. That’s baseball. So please saber stat geeks back away from the calculator and put down the slide rule.
But if Foreman needs more evidence of how dangerous a hitter Ryan Howard is, all he has to do is look at how teams overshift the infield to where you have the third baseman up the middle near second base, the shortstop is positioned to the left of the second base bag and the second baseman playing in the right field behind the infield. You can also look at the numerous times Howard get intentionally walked when a base is open and the game is on the line.
Or better yet, just ask Hank Aaron, one of the greatest sluggers in baseball history. I spoke to him back in 2008 during the World Series about Howard’s ability to hit the ball.
“Ryan is a great ball player and people have to realize that he may not ever hit .270, .280 or .290, but he’s going to make a vital contribution to his ball club,” said Aaron, who hit 755 home runs and is second on the all-time list. He may strike out twice tonight and then go out the next night and hit two home runs. That’s the kind of ball player he is. He’s a great ball player.”
Granted, Howard definitely has some flaws in his game. He doesn’t hit for average, batting just .255 and he has 135 strikeouts, the most on the Phillies. While he has improved in the field, he is not be as good as his contemporaries.
But as a hitter, he is hitting .338 with runners in scoring position with two outs and that ultimately helps your team to win.
“His importance to our team is huge,” said Phillies color analyst Chris Wheeler. “I’m a proponent of I want to watch a guy and what they can do for you. What he does for this team is he’s productive. He’s in the middle of the lineup. When you look up he’s hit 40 runs and driven 120,. 130 runs and makes you pitch differently to other guys.”
It’s one thing for Foreman to use all kinds of number to show why Howard may not be this elite hitter in terms of average or ops, his slugging percentage or on-base percentage. You can certainly twist numbers to mean anything.
But the reality is for Foreman and the rest of sabemetric bean counters, the game is still played on the field by flawed human beings and not in a laboratory speculating on some bizarre mathematical baseball theory. It’s not rocket science.
If number-crunching sabermetric folks really want to know how good Howard or any other hitter is, put the calculators down, go to the ball park and talk to those who are around the game on a regular basis or better yet talk to the people who actually play the game.